Can you spot a slow worm or a grass snake?
When you think of the wildlife found in Cambridgeshire, most people forget the reptiles that call our county their home. Yet reptiles have inhabited our planet for more than 250 million years and they play a vital role in the functioning of our ecosystems: both as predators and as prey themselves – providing a vital food source for birds and mammals. All British reptiles are protected from being killed or injured under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
Which reptiles live in Cambridgeshire?
Monitoring the reptiles that call Cambridgeshire their home can be a useful biological indicator as to the health of the local environment as they are especially sensitive to any changes in habitat. You are most likely to come across common lizards, grass snakes and slow worms.
As their name suggests, common lizards are the most widely recorded. Also known as viviparous lizards, they give birth to live young. But we would particularly like to hear of any sightings of slow worms or grass snakes: they are fairly elusive creatures but you may just see them basking in the sunshine on a warm day. The number of slow worm records in the county in particular is very low – as shown below.
Slow worm records – NLOW area outlined in purple
If you are lucky enough to spot one before they slink away to hibernate over the winter, do let us know on social media using #NewLifeOldWest. Please also remember to record your sighting with Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Environmental Records Centre.
Here’s some information that will help you to spot our reptiles.
Despite appearances, the slow worm is not a worm nor a snake. It’s a legless lizard, so can shed its tail when attacked by predators and blink with its eyelids. A slow worm is much smaller than a snake, with a fatter, less forked tongue and it has smooth, golden-grey skin. Males are paler in colour and sometimes sport blue spots, whilst females are larger, with dark sides and a dark stripe down the back.
Slow worms can be found in heathland, on the edges of woodland and in tussocky and rough grassland. They like to have plenty of invertebrates to eat and a safe, sunny patch in which to bask. They can also be found in mature gardens and allotments, often where there is a compost heap to explore for food.
Britain’s largest snake can grow to over a metre long. It is often found in long grass near water or actually in water as it is an excellent swimmer. A beautiful grey-green in colour, with a yellow and black collar, pale belly, and dark markings down the sides.
Grass snakes hunt and eat amphibians, fish, small mammals and birds. They are very shy creatures and quickly slither away if they hear noise. If they are threatened, they often ‘play dead’, rolling onto their backs with their tongues out. Predators include badgers, red foxes, domestic cats, hedgehogs and a number of birds. When caught, grass snakes hiss and release a foul-smelling substance and although they may also strike with the head, they do not bite and are absolutely harmless to humans.
As our only egg-laying native snake – they lay 30-40 eggs in warm, sheltered places like piles of rotting vegetation and compost heaps – it’s really important to protect the unique grass snake. This is why it is one of our 25 Fenland Flagship Species and we are working hard to create the habitat that this fascinating reptile needs to survive and thrive.
What you can do to support reptiles
- Join a reptile survey. Keep an eye on our website for activities or check out groups such as CPARG for surveys that you could join. The best time of year to search for reptiles is in spring and autumn as reptiles tend to hibernate between November – February.
Remember to record any sightings, whether you are on a guided survey or out surveying alone.
- Build a compost heap. Grass snakes and slow worms love to explore compost heaps for food and seek out these warm spaces as a safe place to lay their eggs. Here’s how to build a wildlife-friendly compost heap.
- Create a reptile refuge. ‘Refuges’ are flat objects, usually corrugated tin or roofing tiles, placed on the ground in a sunny spot in your garden or green space. They absorb warmth from the sun and also provide cover from predators, making them perfect homes for our elusive reptiles.
In our work to support reptiles such as slowworms and grass snakes, we coordinate a number of events and activities that you can be a part of. If you have been inspired to become a volunteer, join a training session or to help improve local habitat working with wildlife experts, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org
New Life on the Old West is a three-year programme, designed and delivered by Cambridgeshire ACRE, a charity dedicated to supporting and strengthening rural communities, with funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund. Wider support comes from close links with over 50 local and regional organisations, specialists, and community groups.